After Grenfell We Need A Complete Rethink of Rights and Resources – Not a Government Whitewash

The attacks in Manchester and Borough Market, the Grenfell Tower Fire. Confidence in Theresa May is now plummeting faster than the Pound after the Brexit vote. But Theresa May is not solely to blame.  Remember that the Conservative Party made her leader with no contest and Conservative MPs voted for a Government destabilising election on the eve of Brexit talks.  But beyond that there are issues of rights and resources in society which we must all confront.

The events of the past few weeks illustrate some vital points about the rights and resources wielded by different groups in this country.  During the election the Government, of course, tried to pretend that it was planning a great extension of rights while in reality presiding over a de facto trashing of them.

Firstly the terrorist attacks.  As usual following a terrorist attack various Ministers appeared in front of the cameras and pretended to talk tough.  Once again the spectre of the repeal of the Human Rights Act was mooted along with withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.  Dark threats of yet more snooping powers were mooted. Yet, it emerged that the terrorists were already known as a danger by the authorities.  The problem was much less to do with lack of information and much more a problem of lack of resources and, crucially, the reduction of 20,000 police officers which has hit local community policing hard. Despite what Theresa May and Amber Rudd say, the authorities are calling for more resources not more powers.  Judging by the election result it seems that people are getting this message.

Now look at the issue of the Grenfell Tower fire. Again, it was not a problem of lack of information, the residents were well aware of the dangers and local representatives tried to raise the issue of fire safety on numerous occasions.   Although far too early to tell there is every likelihood of criminal prosecutions being brought when the facts are assessed.  But while the idea of ‘Corporate Manslaughter’ is an attractive one it will almost certainly mean a fine and nothing will really change.  What is needed is a nationwide culture shift

So again, it is an issue of resources.  The wealthy, including those of Kensington and Chelsea can afford to buy the resources they require including legal assistance to get things done. The less well-off cannot. We can do some things immediately. These include recourse to systems of contestability we have lost.  Access to Industrial Tribunals (removal of punitive fees) and restoration of widespread Legal Aid is imperative, especially after Grenfell.  Far beyond that there must be systems which allow for the support of groups and resources to take concerns to the highest level and get action.

The methods of putting such systems of support for local groups and enabling them to have proper and meaningful representation in the corridors of power are not unknown and cities around the world have been developing techniques such as citizens panels, peoples tribunals and active participation for years (although far from perfect, in the UK  the Peabody Trust points to a possible route forward as I suggest in this post).

Enough of the meaningless platitudes of an authoritarian Government and their ripoff landlord allies.  Time for true methods of contestability in this country.

Theresa May, Democracy and ‘unBritish Activities’

Over the past few months we have become accustomed to Donald Trump using the tactic of making wild, often unsubstantiated accusations about his political opponents, the judiciary and the media.  Such tactics are also familiar to us in the UK by the actions of a virulent corporate owned media.

Without doubt there have been times in the past when the Prime Minister of the day has joined in such activity, but political expediency, advisors or civil servants have eventually stepped in to provide wiser council.  Now, however, it appears that Theresa May has decided (assuming it is a conscious activity) that this behaviour is the new norm, implying that everyone from the European Union to Parliamentarians to the Trade Unions and beyond are conspiring to undermine her and thereby subvert the nation.

Along with the accusations come demagogic attacks on her opponents, attempting to stain their character as a dangerous saboteur or unpatriotic.  So what are the outcomes of such an approach?  Importantly, in keeping with the neo-Conservative mantra of a strong (and stable!!) leader driving through dramatic, damaging and possibly irreversible change to the fabric of society she can present herself as some sort of modern day Boudicca figure, holding back the hoards of hostile forces.

Whether by design or an unconscious feeling of powerlessness in the face of an unimaginably complex Brexit strategy, May is recasting disagreement as deviance, opposition as disruption, debate as subversion. Although more complex in its manifestation (at least until now) the phenomenon of McCarthyism in 1950s America shares many of these characteristics, with the original UnAmerican Activiities becoming UnBritish Activities; likewise, Senator McCarthy’s Soviet Bloc is replaced in May’s world by the  European Union. During the ’50s the main effect was to close down debate and usher in a climate of fear and suspicion of your neighbour.  The effects were felt way beyond politics in art, science and culture.

The rules of a democratic open society is disagreement in a dialogic manner.  May is trying to substitute new rules of Government by fiat and authoritarianism. The consequences are unpredictable, terrifying and the likely loss of treasured liberties

Duke of Wellington – Autocrat and Bully

If there is one thing everyone knows about Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington it is that he won the 1815 Battle of Waterloo bringing the era of Napoleon to a close. Debates over whether his victory (albeit facilitated out by the Prussian General Blucher) was a benefit or a curse are fun but gain little. Good or bad are less relevant than the historical fact. But here are some other things less well known about Wellington.

From 1797 Wellesley served in India rising to the rank of Major-General. He returned to Britain in 1804 having amassed a fortune of £42,000 the time, consisting mainly of prize money from his campaign. Prize money was mainly a naval matter, but existed in the British and  other armies as the proceeds of plunder especially when a town or city had been sacked. So in effect it was theft from the local population, but in reality Wellesley was only playing a part in the systematic ransacking of India during the less than glorious British Empire.

Move forward ro 1819 and Arthur Wellesley was Duke of Wellington, part of the Government led by Lord Liverpool. On August 19th a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn.

The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial. Wellington fully supported the brutal repression and consequently the incident became known as ‘Peterloo’ as a mocking play on his victory four years earlier. As a result he was despised in many places (especially Manchester!) being spat at and physically attacked on the streets.

He was unrelenting and when the first Great Reform Bill was presented to the House of Commons in 1831 Wellington and the Tories worked to prevent its passage.  As a reprisal his residence at Apsley House was targeted by a mob of demonstrators on 27 April 1831 and again on 12 October, leaving his windows smashed.  Iron shutters were installed (hence Iron Duke!) in June 1832 to prevent further damage. His attitude was unsustainable and being removed from office shortly after the Bill was passed in 1832 by Earl Grey’s administration.

There is, however, a somewhat ironic twist. One positive act which Wellington carried out  was Cathiolic Empancipation in 1829, giving catholics full rights in Britain and Ireland.  But as the establishment was (and still largely is) protestant in nature that too is less well publicised!

Categorising the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’? Maybe the Expert-Bashers Were Correct After All!

Passing_of_the_Parliament_Bill,_1911_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19609Occasionally a statement is made which is so far removed from reality it is rendered  meaningless. Such a moment occurred last week when The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its Democracy Index 2016 once again categorised the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’. In fact they regarded it as more of a democracy in 2016, rating it 8.36/10 than in 2015, when it scored 8.31/10, largely as a result of the EU referendum. This is enough to rate the UK at number 16 out of more than 160 countries examined and the anomaly is of such glaring proportions that it lends credence to the campaign tactics of populist movements around the world (most notably during the 2016 UK EU Referendum campaign by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson) of discrediting experts.

The full report can be accessed from The Economist website, but you have to sign your life away to get to it (they want to grab the details of as many professionals as they can, hence a telephone number etc). Alternatively, you can read a summary of the report on the World Economic Forum site.  Although the overall results are clear it is worth digging in a little to examine just how they came to this seemingly bizarre conclusion.  It is not necessary to sign up with the devil to do this as last year’s report for 2015 is freely available.

Stretching the definition of ‘Full Democracy’ beyond reasonable bounds!

For a start I am not sure what is meant by a ‘full democracy’ in the first place So here is the EIU definition:

Countries in which not only basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected, but also tend to be underpinned by a political culture conducive to the  nourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory. Media are independent and diverse. There is an effective system of checks and balances. The judiciary is independent and judicial decisions are enforced. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies.

Part of this definition applies (e.g. an independent judiciary) but lets compare it with the obvious basic anti-democratic features of the UK.  Our constitution (unwritten) allows for an uncontestable Monarchy, a House of Lords (including 92 hereditary peers and 26 Church of England Bishops), an autocratic Privy Council and a Royal Prerogative through which the government can bypass Parliament and judiciary.  On top of this there is a first past the post electoral system which has handed power to representatives elected by only 37% of people who voted, a hugely biassed press and a sophisticated corporate lobbying industry.  Bearing in mind this list could have been many times longer and a democracy score of 83.1% is already absurd.

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